The story is pretty all over the place, but AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands’ fight scenes are unlike any combat action that’s appeared on American television in years. Maybe ever.
Last night’s episode threw us immediately into the thick of it: An opening storm on the Widow’s manse, pitting her Butterflies against Quinn’s Clippers. It was unequivocally the best part of the show.
First, the juxtaposition of martial arts swordplay with the Old South still delights me—the Widow’s plantation, filled with harps and potted ferns, looks more like a place for afternoon sweet tea and pimento cheese canapés than shuriken-throwing face-offs.
But the fighting itself was just fantastic. The high-pressure skirmishes between main characters, like Quinn and the Widow, were paced and choreographed with cineplex-worthy polish. The part when the Widow chucked a sword at the door, just as Sunny enters the room, narrowly missing his face?! So good. Plus, the skill and athleticism of the actors make everything feel as cinematic as the rest of AMC’s fare: The Walking Dead harkens back to Romero flicks, and Mad Men had the stylish languidness of ‘50s Hitchcock. Into the Badlands is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the small screen. (And, as we’ve mentioned before, the show’s fight director worked on that very movie.)
And when Sunny had to track down that blonde femme fatale that bamboozled Ryder last week, that was the very film that it remind me of, as Sunny glided up the multistory building, like some kind of magical, killer flying squirrel, chasing the woman before she jumped to her gruesome death.
I guess the challenge from here is, if we’re being treated to three fight scenes per episode, keeping the combat elements changing and interesting. Might the different Barons’ armies specialize in different fighting styles? Will they use specialty weapons? Will they have different colors and animal mascots?!
I’d also like to continue seeing the battles in a variety of settings that can offer a bunch of different terrain and obstacles to deal with. That’s what I liked about this week’s chase with Sunny: The woman climbed up pillars of the tall buildings like a tree-climbing ninja.
My biggest complaint about the show right now is that there’s too much going on with characters I’m not finding myself caring about. Quinn is one-dimensionally evil; Lydia’s motherly devotion to Ryder is just spelled out to us in words and not demonstrated in actions or flashbacks; Veil and Sunny’s subplot is boring, since they’re not doing enough to try to leave the Badlands, and thus not giving us opportunities to hold our breath and hope to God the crazy kids make it out in one piece, unborn baby and all.
That’s why I’d kinda like to see it just turn into the M.K. and Tilda show. They are the most fascinating characters, at least to me. Their relationship is the one we’re being invited the most into, and also the one that has the most twists and turns. That’s another reason the opening fight scene was so brilliant: In addition to all the great action, it peppered in interpersonal drama that fueled relationships, like M.K. and Tilda’s ever-so-brief glimpse of each other as the Butterflies were escaping the mansion.
Right before Sunny threw down with the prostitute, M.K. and Tilda were able to share a confrontation outside that tied in their struggle that revolves around trusting each other. And I did feel genuine anxiety when the Widow basically called Tilda out toward the end of the episode. Between those two and Quinn and M.K.’s relationship, I’m really interested in the Battle Royale-esque dynamic of using kids to kill other kids. Dark, but it makes me all the more pumped for the day when M.K. and Tilda turn on their masters, maybe leading an uprising in which all the Colts and Butterflies raze the Barons’ baddies and escape from the Badlands once and for all.
Until then, Tilda needs to stay on the DL and M.K. needs more training. Which leads me to another thing I wasn’t crazy about in this episode, which was a sort of martial arts flick cliche: Waldo, the bird-feeding ex-Regent in the wheelchair. Like, what did we think was going to happen when the overconfident youngster was ordered to try to lay one finger on the disabled elderly sensei? I mentioned that the show does fall into stereotype traps occasionally, and this struck me as another example of that.
I’m willing to overlook that stuff, though, because I’m enjoying Into the Badlands, and it’s giving me just the Sunday night escapism I need. I mean, the NFL is great, but sometimes you just want to watch people get sliced ‘n diced, y’know?
Email the author at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter.
Photos Patti Perret/AMC.